Memory games miss the mark

9th January 1998 at 00:00
REVISE THROUGH DIAGRAMS SERIES. Biology. By W R Pickering. Chemistry. By Michael Lewis. Physics. By Brian Arnold. Oxford University Press Pounds 6.50 each

Revision Guides series GCSE Science. By Ted Lister and Janet Renshaw. Pearson Publishing Pounds 4.95

Revise, revise, revise is the teacher's exhortation to their GCSE candidates. The Revise through Diagrams series summarises the main ideas and concepts for the individual GCSE science syllabuses. Each page focuses on one aspect of the syllabus and contains at least one black and white diagram which is surrounded by boxed notes. However, it is the notes which dominate the page, so that the series might have been more aptly titled "Revise through Notes with Diagrams".

The diagrams are simple conventional line diagrams of a reasonable standard, though some, such as those portraying the defects of the eye, the eclipse of the sun, the domestic hot water system and the structure of the heart are oversimplistic or even questionable.

The books cover nearly all aspects of the syllabus including the Scottish standard grade and have a useful index. Most of the explanations are satis-factory, though the physics book persists in conveying a definition of Newton's Third Law that is widely recognised as misleading and confusing. Surprisingly, the books come with no introduction and no guidance for either student or teacher as to how they might be used. Essentially they are little more than potted revision notes with a set of unexceptional diagrams.

More worrying is the sense they convey that physics, chemistry and biology are simply a body of unrelated facts which have to be absorbed, memorised and appropriately regurgitated. Where is any sense of an underlying structure or overarching story that the sciences might have to tell?

A more effective method of revision would be a large, detailed blank diagram which the student was asked to annotate? At least such a task would require some thought and learning by the student.

However, the authors have given no thought to the use of such strategies and the books lack even the merest hint of a sorting exercise, a concept map or other standard techniques. Perhaps the saddest aspect of these books is that they are considered necessary. If they are a reflection of the science education produced by the national curriculum, then it is not surprising there is a lack of interest in post 16 science.

Some pupils may find these books a useful revision guide, but for any teacher who has a love of science, or for that matter a love of teaching, there is little to recommend in this joyless and dispiriting series.

Ted Lister and Janet Renshaw's small, inexpensive Revision Guide offers another form of assistance. The contents are a useful mix of information and tests of factual knowledge.

Pages are divided in two with scientific words on the left-hand side and the explanation on the right. Students are encouraged to cover the right-hand side and test their understanding of the word on the left. There are also several "fill in the gaps" tests and a few maths problems.

The text is regularly illustrated with small, but clear black-and-white diagrams and the harder topics are placed at the end of each section. Brief answers to all the questions are provided at the end of the book.

An emphasis on the "facts" of science reflects the arcane syllabuses defined by the existing national curriculum. Pupils need to develop the ability to sift and analyse information; not to learn by rote. However, within these limitations, this book can be recommended.

Jonathan Osborne is a lecturer in science education at King's College, London

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